C.K. Williams

Walt Whitman Birthplace Association 2011 Poet in Residence



Pulitzer Prize-winning Poet

“To put it simply, C.K. Williams is a wonderful poet, in the authentic American tradition of Walt Whitman and William Carlos Williams, who tells us on every page what it means to be alive in our time.” —Stanley Kunitz

“His fearless inventions, with their rangeness of language and big long lines, quest after the entirety of life.” —Robert Pinsky

C. K. Williams is the author of ten books of poetry, the most recent of which is Wait, published in 2010 from FSG. Collected Poems, released in 2007, features the long arc of Williams’ career, from the morbid sanguinities of his apprentice work to the careful, moving, stanzaic focus evident in 21 new poems. The Singing won the National Book Award for 2003, and his previous book, Repair, was awarded the 2000 Pulitzer Prize and the Los Angeles Times Book Award. His collection Flesh and Blood received the National Book Critics Circle Award. Williams has also published a memoir, Misgivings: My Mother, My Father, Myself, in 2000, and has published translations of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, Euripides’ Bacchae, and poems of Francis Ponge, among others. A book of essays, Poetry and Consciousness, appeared in 1998. A prose book entitled Williams, On Whitman, was released in 2010 from Princeton University Press. He was recently awarded the Twentieth Annual Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize, an honor given to an American poet in recognition of extraordinary accomplishement. Among his honors are awards in literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the PEN/Voelcker Career Achievement Award, and fellowships from the Lila Wallace Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment of the Arts. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2003, and teaches in the Writing Program at Princeton University. Williams started writing poetry when he was nineteen, shortly after taking his last required English class at the University of Pennsylvania. “Poetry didn’t find me, in the cradle or anywhere near it: I found it,” he recalled. “I realized at some point—very late, it’s always seemed—that I needed it, that it served a function for me—or someday would—however unclear that function may have been at first.” Williams found his voice as a poet in the mid-sixties when writing to a magazine editor about the violence directed against civil rights activists. The process of writing this letter opened up a new way of thinking for Williams—a paradigm for writing all of his poetry. The result was “A Day for Anne Frank,” a meditation that linked the civil rights movement with the Holocaust and became the opening poem of his first collection, Lies (1969). “After the Anne Frank poem…I seemed to be able to write poems I wanted to write, in a way that satisfied me, that made the struggle with the matter and form and surface of the poems bearable, and, more to the point, purposeful,” wrote Williams.

Williams is known for his daring formal style, marrying perceptive everyday observations to lines so long that they defy the conventions of lyric poetry. His poems often border on the prosaic, inspiring critics to compare them to Walt Whitman’s. Williams began his career as a strong anti-war writer, and in a recent profile in The New York Times stated that he still feels pulled in that direction: “It is always there, but it is more subliminal and is no longer on the surface. I do not want to be dogmatic.”

The Singing explores topics surrounding aging: the loss of loved ones, the love of grandchildren, and the struggle to retain memories of childhood even while dealing with the complexity of current events. Of the poems in this collection, John Ashberry wrote, “They are clear about complex things, which one sees as slightly magnified, like pebbles on the bed of a very clear stream. Williams now realizes more than ever that “your truths will seek you, though you still / must construct and comprehend them.” He succeeds at this task with a flair that tempers the regret that is the recurring note in these poems, and transforms it into something like joy.” Today, Williams is considered one of the most esteemed living American poets.

“The most interesting thing about a poem is that it doesn’t exist until it has its music. Every poem has a music. And until it has that, it’s not a poem. It’s just information or data that’s floating around in your head or on your desk.” –C.K. Williams

About WAIT (2010)
Wait finds C. K. Williams by turns ruminative, stalked by “the conscience-beast, who harries me,” and “riven by idiot vigor, voracious as the youth I was for whom everything was going too slowly, too slowly.” Poems about animals and rural life are set hard by poems about shrapnel in Iraq and sudden desire on the Paris Métro; grateful invocations of Herbert and Hopkins give way to fierce negotiations with the shades of Coleridge, Dostoevsky, and Celan. What the poems share is their setting in the cool, spacious, spotlit, book-lined place that is Williams’s consciousness, a place whose workings he has rendered for fifty years with inimitable candor and style.

Collected Poems brings together in one volume C. K. Williams’s work of nearly forty years, enabling readers to follow the career of this great poet through its many phases and reinventions. Here are his confrontational early poems, which bristle with a young idealist’s righteous anger. Here are the roomy, rangy poems of Tar and With Ignorance, in which Williams married the long line of Whitman to a modern’s psychological self-scrutiny; the compact sonnets of Flesh and Blood; and the inward investigations of A Dream of Mind. Here are the incomparable poems from the prize winning books Repair and The Singing. Here, too, are new poems, in which Williams’s moral vigilance is brought to bear, again, on life during wartime. Collected Poems is the life’s work of a modern master—fiercely intelligent, arresting in its beauty, unforgettable in its echoes and reverberations.


I was walking home down a hill near our house
on a balmy afternoon under the blossoms
Of the pear trees that go flamboyantly mad here
every spring with their burgeoning forth

When a young man turned in from a corner singing no it was more of a cadenced shouting
Most of which I couldn’t catch I thought because
the young man was black speaking black

It didn’t matter I could tell he was making his song up which pleased me he was nice-looking
Husky dressed in some style of big pants obviously
full of himself hence his lyrical flowing over

We went along in the same direction then he noticed me there almost beside him and “Big”
He shouted-sang “Big” and I thought how droll
to have my height incorporated in his song

So I smiled but the face of the young man showed nothing he looked in fact pointedly away
And his song changed “I’m not a nice person”
he chanted “I’m not I’m not a nice person”

No menace was meant I gathered no particular threat but he did want to be certain I knew
That if my smile implied I conceived of anything like concord between us I should forget it

That’s all nothing else happened his song became
indecipherable to me again he arrived
Where he was going a house where a girl in braids
waited for him on the porch that was all

No one saw no one heard all the unasked and
unanswered questions were left where they were
It occurred to me to sing back “I’m not a nice
person either” but I couldn’t come up with a tune

Besides I wouldn’t have meant it nor he have believed it both of us knew just where we were
In the duet we composed the equation we made
the conventions to which we were condemned

Sometimes it feels even when no one is there that
someone something is watching and listening
Someone to rectify redo remake this time again though no one saw nor heard no one was there



WWBA’s Past Poets-in-Residence

We are most proud of our sponsorship of a Poet-in-Residence Program, which each year, has honored, distinguished contemporary poets.

William Heyen-1981, Allan Planz-1982, Louis Simpson-1983, John Ciardi-1984, W.D.Snodgrass-1985, Galway Kinnell-1986, David Ignatow-1987, June Jordan-1988, Stanley Kunitz-1989, William Stafford-1990, Allen Ginsberg-1991, Sharon Olds-1992, Adrienne Rich-1993, Robert Bly-1994, Joseph Bruchac-1995, Diane Wakoski-1996, Galway Kinnell-1997 Mark Rudman-1998, Yevgeny Yevtushenko-1999, Marge Piercy-2000, Billy Collins-2001, Gary Soto-2002, Samuel Menashe-2003, Marvin Bell-2004, Nikki Giovanni-2005, Molly Peacock-2006, David Wagoner-2007, Alicia Ostriker-2008, X. J. Kennedy-2009, Mark Doty-2010



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